Sermon: “The Messenger of the Covenant” (Malachi 2:17-3:6)
Listen to the Sermon:
This morning we are going to be back in the book of Malachi. We are going to be in Malachi 217-3:6 this morning. Hear now the reading of the word of the Lord.
17 You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?”
3:1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. 6 “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. Malachi 2:17-3:6, ESV
This is the reading of the word of the Lord.
The Problem With Evil
One of the most difficult and pressing questions that God calls us to wrestle with in the Christian life is the problem of evil in the world. When we walk through life and encounter natural evils; things like famines, earthquakes, natural disasters or diseases. Or moral evils; things like murder, terrorism, wickedness and injustice run amok. Both Christians and non-Christians down through the ages have wondered how all of the evil that we encounter in the world can be reconciled with the Bible’s claim of God’s supreme goodness and power. Why would the God of justice tolerate such evil and injustice in the world?
Perhaps more directly when we feel the sting of evil in a very personal way, we’ve asked before like the people in Malachi, where is the God of justice? These sorts of questions are as old as the fall because wickedness and injustice are a result of the fall. The problem of evil in whatever form it takes greatly disturbs us and maybe many of us have had experiences of being disturbed by that in our lives. We as Christians know the claims that God is on his throne and that God rules with a scepter of righteousness. Yet in our lives on earth maybe you’ve shed buckets of tears before because it sometimes seems as if the kingdom of darkness has a greater foothold on the earth that the kingdom of light.
But when we come to the scriptures, we also recognize that we’re not alone in wrestling through these questions. Instead we find in the scriptures that the people of God, down through the ages, have also wrestled with these kinds of questions in very personal ways. They too have seen evil and wickedness, the out working of moral and spiritual bankruptcy. They’ve seen the evil prospering at the hands of the godly. They too have asked when will justice be carried out? Or in the words of the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord, shall the wicked exalt?” The Bible doesn’t brush over this problem of evil with a neat or a clean answer. But it does offer us a way forward.
As we hear the people of God in the scriptures wrestling with the problem of evil in their own lives, they also give us the resources for learning how to wrestle with it for ourselves. They teach us how to lament. They give us both a model and the language to pray when we encounter those troubling realities too. Texts like Psalm 13, Psalm 73 and Habakkuk, just to name a few, teach us how to lament when we’re in the ash heap. Yet, with faith that rests in God’s timing for making all things new and right. When we are faced with the problem of evil and suffering, the scriptures train us not necessarily with a systematic or pat answer, though there are answers. Rather they teach us how to lament it with faith.
On the other hand, sometimes the problem of evil and our encounter with the problem leads us in a different direction, a darker direction. Instead of learning how to lament that problem with faith, trusting that God has and he will do something about it. Some of us may conclude instead that something is fundamentally lacking with God and he can’t be trusted.
There’s a popular school of thought that maybe you’ve encountered at one time or another which reasons through the problem of evil like this. It says that because of all of this evil and all of this wickedness in the world, God simply cannot be who the scriptures claim that he is.
This way of reasoning claims that God cannot be both all good and all powerful as the Bible claims. He’s either one or the other or he doesn’t exist at all. So, the reasoning goes, maybe he’s all good but then he can’t be all powerful otherwise evil and injustice wouldn’t exist in the world. So, he may be good but it’s beyond his power to do anything about the evil and injustice that we encounter in the world. On the other hand, maybe he’s all powerful, but if that’s the case then he’s not good. Because if God’s all powerful and he can deal with evil and suffering whenever he wants to, then to let it go unchecked demonstrates that he’s not good. Either way, so the reasoning goes, the two claims that God is all good and all powerful are thought to be mutually exclusive. In the end God is less than what the Bible claims him to be and he cannot be trusted.
This latter response isn’t new because we find a similar kind of response on the lip and in the hearts of Malachi’s audience in Malachi 2:17. Now they’re not dealing with the wholesale problem of evil, nor are they dealing with it in the abstract. They are dealing with a slice of this problem. A certain manifestation of evil that’s reared its head in the land. They are dealing with it personally. They see things like corruption and injustice in the land. What it looks like we don’t quite know, but they see it and they see the wicked getting ahead in life at the expense of the godly. They see many of the same things that we see today in our own lives and many things that others in the Bible have seen in their lives. But they, the people of Malachi’s day, conclude that because of the presence of those injustices and that wickedness in the land something must be fundamentally lacking with God.
They reason in verse 17 that God must be unjust and he’s really not that good. They make the statement that in effect God delights in injustice and evil. He’s not good. He has reason and goodness somehow backwards. Then they say with a sneering kind of cynicism, “where is the God of justice?”
God, they reason, is negligent and he’s absent in our midst. As a result of those thoughts, they’re not going to bother with him any longer. There’s no point, they think, in serving or worshipping him. So, they will gloss over his commands for worship and his commands for marriage as we’ve seen them already do in Malachi. And they will embrace some of the wickedness in the land themselves because they see no point any longer in obeying the commands of God.
Where is the Problem of Evil Leading You?
This same heart wrenching problem of evil and wickedness that leads the Psalmists, for example, one way leads Malachi’s audience another way. So where is your experience with that problem leading you?
Are you like Malachi’s audience? So, discontent while living in the tensions that God must be somehow less that what the Scriptures claim he is and therefore cannot be trusted? Have you also concluded that it’s vain to serve God? It’s a drudgery and a weariness and I’m not going to put up with it any longer? Have you concluded those things or are you thinking those types of thoughts?
Whatever your approach the prophet Malachi offers us a response to this age-old question of moral evil in the world in two important ways.
- He turns our eyes inward
- He helps us look forward
This is what he does, first he says in response that this kind of approach, one that concludes that God cannot be trusted and that it’s vanity to serve him, wearies God. It wearies God because in the same breath that they grumble against God’s lack of justice against wickedness, they fail to recognize how their own wickedness and sin contribute to those things in the world.
Second Malachi gives a promise. He offers a way forward. He tells us audience that there is someone on the way, this messenger of the covenant who will suddenly arrive to right every wrong. Justice is coming, Malachi proclaims, get ready. Malachi’s response we will see as we work through this text calls you and me, the people in Malachi’s day, and everywhere in between to a posture of both humility and hope. He calls us to the humility that the Psalmists can have when they lament the problem of moral evil. He calls us to hope as he corrects our misunderstandings about ourselves and about God that injustice and evil can sometimes lead us to believe.
He calls his audience in the 450s B.C. and he calls us today to humility and hope that God is indeed the God of justice, mercy, power and goodness, just as the scriptures claim he is. As we work through this passage, we will see how exactly that’s the case.
Today’s big idea is this, “God promises to draw near with justice, to justify and to judge.”
As we walk through this text, we are going to hear three promises God makes to a people disillusioned by their encounter with evil and hardened by their own sin.
- There’s a promise of God’s presence.
- There’s a promise of purified people.
- There’s a promise of propitiation for a people.
A Promise of God’s Presence
The first promise that we hear from Malachi is that God is going to send a messenger to his people. We read in Malachi’s response to their questioning in 2:17, we read this,
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:1, ESV
We’ve already come across this word “messenger” a few times in Malachi. Do you remember all the way back in 2:7, the prophet, in his criticism of the Levitical priests and the corruption in the priesthood of the day, described the ideal priestly ministry from the Pentateuch? He said that those ideal priests were messengers. They were the messengers who were called to minister in and around God’s temple by offering instruction to the people of God. Ministering and declaring God’s word as God’s ambassadors, they were messengers of the covenant.
Malachi’s name means messenger. Malachi is a messenger of the Lord as well. Now here in 3:1 God looks beyond both messengers, he looks beyond the Levitical priests and he looks beyond Malachi into the future and he envisions another messenger. In fact, he envisions not one messenger, but two messengers.
Look with me at the text. First there is this messenger who prepare the way before the Lord. Then there is this messenger of the covenant who the text seems to equate with the Lord who suddenly comes into his temple. Malachi shows here the preparatory work of one messenger who comes to announce that the King of Kings is on his way. Then he envisions another messenger who is God himself. A messenger of the covenant who comes into his temple. So, Malachi announces God is coming.
God is Coming
God is on his way. But unlike the messengers that God sent to his people in the past, the messengers like the Levitical priests and like Malachi, those messengers he sent in the past to speak in the name of God to the problems of wickedness and evil in the world. This messenger of the covenant is better than all who came before because he’s not just going to speak to the problem of evil and wickedness run amok. He’s going to do something about it. This messenger of the covenant is going to come into their midst and bring the justice that they claim they are longing for.
Behold, the God of justice is on his way. But things aren’t exactly what they seem. Notice where the messenger of the covenant comes to first. He comes to his temple; he comes to his covenant people first. As the next few verses reveal, this is a terrifying turn of the tables from the perspective of Malachi’s cynical audience. Malachi says to God’s people who were complaining not with faith, but with a certain kind of cynicism about the problem of wickedness; that while you identify all the wickedness and all the injustice that’s wreaking havoc in the land out there, you’re missing the wickedness and the evil of your own hearts. God says to his people, you’re able to identify all of the evil and all of the wickedness out there, well done. But in the process, you’ve missed the disease that’s killing you from the inside.
It doesn’t mean that the people of God are wrong when they complain about injustice and evil and sin in the land. Those are real problems that God will deal with. He is the God of justice and he will by no means clear the guilty wherever they lie. That also means that his own people aren’t off the hook either. The God of justice is coming to them. That should give them pause and fear. They want the God of justice, but that’s because they think he’s going to deal out there. God however has a more comprehensive plan in mind. That leads us to our second point.
There is a Promise of a Purified People
The people of God claim they want justice. They want the God of justice to come and act on their behalf. Justice simply means giving people their due. It’s a balancing of the scales. Malachi claims that indeed God is coming. He’s coming to you in justice. That raises a serious problem for everyone in Judah and everyone in the world. Malachi address that problem next in verse two. Where he asks the simple and profound question,
“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2, ESV
This is similar to the questions posed by the Psalmist in Psalm 130
“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3, ESV
The implied answer to both of these questions is no one. Again, they claim they want justice but the problem is that if God comes and gives people their due, no one would stand. Certainly not the Levites who have approved of corrupt worship and engaged in partial instruction. Certainly not these men of Judah who divorced their lawful wives to marry the daughters of a foreign god. Certainly, not any of the people of God throughout redemptive history, especially in this text, who have no desire to serve him. Certainly not you nor me. No one could stand.
This becomes clear in 3:5 when Malachi lists all of these sins that God is on his way to judge.
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” Malachi 3:5, ESV
This word we read for judgement in verse five is the same word for justice in verse 17. So, in other words, the justice that the people of God are craving in verse 17, this even-handed giving people their due, would ironically bring judgement for everyone in verse five because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
No one is off the hook. They claim that they want justice but if God were to weigh them in the balance they would be found wanting. That’s the point of these seven violations that Malachi lists in verse 5. These seven violations, as Ian Doug would note, are intended to represent the entirety of the law. If we unpacked each one, every person who has ever existed is implicated.
Take sorcery for example, you don’t have to be a self-professed wizard to be guilty of sorcery. Sorcery refers to the attempt to manipulate God to serve your own end. So, any time we follow God’s commandments as a means to get something out of God. Thinking that we are somehow putting God in debt to us. That’s a functional approach to sorcery.
So even in this sin, the one that might seem furthest removed from our lives, we aren’t off the hook. No one is. Judah is guilty and we’re guilty. So, is there any hope then when the God of justice draws near to his people to deal with evil and wickedness when we’re revealed to be evil and wicked too? Yes there is, because we also learn in this text that God not only announces a swift judgement. He also announces that a people, a remnant ,will be purified so that they can serve him by bringing again offerings in righteousness to the Lord.
In verse three we discover that some are indeed not consumed. They’re purified by God. There are a few images in verse three to picture God’s purifying work. We learn that this messenger of the covenant, when he comes, is like a refining fire who will burn off the contaminations of a gold or silver vessel so that it can be presented pure.
The Lord, the messenger of the covenant ,is like fuller soap. I’ll admit that I had no idea what that was when I looked at this text. Some of those antiquated words sneak their way into our translations. That simply refers to launders soap. It’s what we would clean off the garment and wash any soil off, to present it white as snow again.
Finally, we learn that he will send us a refiner. This is image not necessarily of the fire, but of the artisan who sits by the gold and the silver vessels to craft it into a beautifully ordained piece. So, all of this imagery indicates that God is also going to purify a people through the same messenger of the covenant. Some won’t actually be consumed for their sin, praise God! Some will be purified from the guilt and corruption of sin so that they could once again serve the Lord in righteousness. But how exactly would that happen? How exactly could that happen? How is it that some, as we read in verse five, are consumed in judgement but others are purified and refined as a people made ready to serve God? Why isn’t everyone in their wickedness and corrupt hearts consumed? Now we come to the final verse of our passage, verse six.
There is a Promise of Propitiation for a People
We read this in verse six-
“6 “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Malachi 3:6, ESV
We’ve heard already in Malachi the Lord say to his people, “I have loved you.” He chose to set his love on a people, and he secured that relationship with his people by way of covenant. We’ve seen the importance of God’s covenant love and we talked about that a few weeks ago. God’s covenant reminds us that God is committed and he bound himself to a people. They did nothing to earn it and nothing to deserve it.
God isn’t simply going to abandon his covenant promises. The Lord doesn’t change, he doesn’t revoke a promise that he bound himself to keep. Here’s the issue, the Lord also doesn’t change in his justice and holiness.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in question four, states that God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. God doesn’t change in his truth. What he promised to his people when he says, “I will be your God and your will be my people.” That doesn’t change, he doesn’t revoke that.
Neither does God change in his goodness and mercy, which are expressed in the covenant of grace. Neither does he change in his holiness and justice. So, on the one hand there’s hope that God isn’t going to just hand his people, the remnant he has chosen to save, over to their sin. On the other hand, how can God not do that if justice demands that the sin and ungodliness and wickedness be satisfied? He’s a God of justice who will by no means clear the guilty, how’s he going to do that?
The answer is that the messenger of the covenant would satisfy the justice that God demands. We haven’t talked about these two messengers, but if you are familiar with the New Testament, then you probably know that the identity of these two messengers is pretty much revealed to us in the Gospels. If we turn to either Matthew, Mark or Luke, any one of the synoptic gospels, we would see that the first half of verse one, where we read about a messenger coming to prepare the way, it’s quoted and applied in those three gospels to John the Baptist.
John is identified for us in each of those gospels as the one who prepares the way for the Lord. He’s the first messenger who heralds this announcement of a coming king, the Lord himself who’s on his way. Of course, if that’s John then the Lord who comes into his temple is no other than the one that John points to, the one who’s sandal straps he’s unworthy to untie, Jesus Christ. John prepares the way for Jesus to come to the lost sheep of Israel.
When he comes, we see Jesus ministering in and around his own people first. Then he goes to the heart of religious and social life. He comes into the temple, his temple, and he cleanses and judges it. He calls out the hypocrisy and vain worship that characterize it. Just as they characterized the temple in Malachi’s day too. But then he builds a new temple in his body by having all of the wickedness of his people turned against himself, so they are not consumed. Jesus comes first to deal with the sins of his people and to be consumed by the wrath of God on their behalf to satisfy this justice that God demands. So that when he comes again at the end of the age to judge with justice, his elect won’t by consumed but rather they will be saved.
There is a Promise of Propitiation for a People
450 years after Malachi delivers this prophesy, Jesus would give his life as a propitiation for those God chose to save. Propitiation refers to God’s righteous wrath being turned away from sinners because the justice he demands has been satisfied. God’s people aren’t consumed by the wrath of God because Jesus Christ was. God doesn’t change in his covenant promises. God doesn’t change in his holiness and God doesn’t change in his justice. The messenger of the covenant, Jesus Christ, came into the temple to end all bloody sacrifices by hanging on a tree. So, by grace, through faith alone we are not consumed, because he was.
Justice was satisfied and in the end God’s people, through faith alone, are justified. We are declared right before a holy, all-consuming God as a result. God will not change in his disposition towards sin. That’s a warning towards Malachi’s audiences who don’t think God is really going to do anything about injustice and wickedness in the land. So, they might as well join in with the lot. That’s a warning toward any of us who have grown cold to God and his gospel.
God will not change in this disposition, in those he has chosen to save. He will deal with their wickedness through his own son, so that we can offer sacrifices of praise in the new covenant of Jesus’ body. That is a life-giving encouragement to cling to when we ask and we cry out, “how long O Lord”.
So, in light of this text, let me offer a few applications to leave us with.
First, the problem of evil and wickedness that Malachi’s audience is encountering is again a problem as old as the fall. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away, until Jesus comes again in glory. We’ve all encountered the problem of wickedness and evil in the world. And most, if not all of us, have come face to face with this problem in very personal and very rotten ways. When that’s happened how have you responded? Do you respond like the people in Malachi’s day, “God if he really exists must not really care about wickedness and evil in the land, so I’m not going to do anything according to his word anymore”? Do you begin to distance yourself from Jesus and from his body, all the while convincing yourself that God must not be good, his people are foolish, and it’s just not worth it?
The Bible never teaches us when we encounter this problem of evil, to pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead it tells us to expect it and then it gives us a theology of lament. It teaches us to grieve every manifestation of sin and evil in the world. It gives us the vocabulary and the model to pray with an honest recognition that things are not the way that they are supposed to be. It also assures us that God has done something to make it right and he will come again to finally make it all right again. We aren’t giving every answer to every question we might ask. It doesn’t sanitize the problem and it doesn’t abstract the problem. Instead it gives confidence to those who sit in the muck and the mire of this problem. When the barbs of wickedness and evil sting us, and boy they hurt when they do, it reminds us that evil does not speak the last word. Have you learned to lament with hope and faith?
Second, when we recognize that real evil and real wickedness exist in this world, it needs to be called out and recognized for what it is. It needs to be lamented and grieved at the same time we recognize those things. Do you also grieve the wickedness of your own heart?
One of the problems among the people that Malachi addresses here is that they see evil and wickedness out in the world magnified. They are very good at identifying it. Whatever they see, it leads them to point the finger repeatedly at those problems and then wag the finger at God for not doing anything about it. We’ve seen them point the finger at God numerous times in Malachi already.
Malachi’s emphasis that this messenger of the covenant is coming to his temple. Malachi’s rhetorical question, “who can stand” is no one. And Malachi’s emphasis is that God is going to draw near to you for judgement, even as the people of God learn to lament the real problem of evil that we encounter out there in the world.
We also need to learn to point the finger at ourselves and see the wickedness of our own hearts exposed for what it is. Calvin writes, “Let everyone who implores God’s judgement be his own judge.” All of us have to be ready to grieve our wickedness and our sin. We have to understand that Jesus had to die for your wickedness and your sin. We have to understand that the only reason we are not consumed is because of the covenant love that God has in Christ for those he’s chosen to save. We have to understand that our sin nature merits the same death that every other person has merited, and will receive, outside of Christ.
So, don’t be so consumed even as we grieve and lament the wickedness of the world. Don’t be so consumed with it that you remain ignorant to your own sin and the wickedness that’s lurking inside your own heart, like the people of God in Malachi who at every turn seem to be blind by their own sin.
Third, the messenger of the covenant fully dealt with the wickedness of our sin and promises salvation and renewed worship as God’s people, anyone who would turn to Jesus Christ. While the messenger came the first time to deal with the sins of God’s elect, for our sin and for our salvation. And while God promises that in Christ the guilt and the corruption of our sin is atoned for so we can worship him as created to do, a judgement day is coming.
Malachi, like most Old Testament prophets, looks forward to the last days and kind of collapses together the Messiah’s first coming and second coming. That’s why we read about a purification for some and a final judgement for others, kind of all entangled together. We know from our perspective in these last days that a judgement day is coming. Jesus is coming. Jesus, this messenger of the covenant is coming again to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Fully and finally. Also, he is coming to judge those who haven’t embraced him by faith as their only comfort in life and in death, the solution for evil and wickedness.
So, the simple question is, do you know Jesus? Do you see that the only remedy possible for the problem of evil is found in Jesus? He bore the greatest and vilest of evils so that we could have life. Turn to him, repent. The great hope we have to cling to, when we are overcome by evil and wickedness in the world, is simply to put our hope in the gospel. Jesus bore our sin and wickedness so that we would not be consumed by the God of justice when he comes again, as he promises to do, in judgement.
Let me pray. Almighty God, we are reminded from the words from Habakuk this morning
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation..” Habakkuk 3:17-18, ESV
Our Father, I pray as we encounter evil and wickedness and injustice in the world, as we tend to be overcome by the presence of those things, that you would turn us inward and you would turn us outward. That you would turn us inward to recognize, as we grieve and lament these things, to recognize our own hearts and our own wickedness and evil and how that contributes to the evil in this world. I also pray that you would move us forward. You would point us forward to the resurrection hope that we have in Christ who promises again to deal finally and fully with sin. To give us a home without any more suffering or tears or pain, the new heavens and the new earth in glory. We pray that you would encourage us by these things even as you convict us. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.